Bush's border plan: technology-focused

In addition to adding troops, the plan calls for high-tech tactics.

As the outlines of President Bush's border-security plan become clearer, a familiar working principle emerges: that a relatively small number of troops, equipped with the most advanced technologies of the day, can do the work of a larger force.

More than three years ago, the Bush administration used a similar principle as it went to war in Iraq with a somewhat small but technologically advanced force.

Now, the centerpiece of the administration's border-control efforts is not only the temporary National Guard mission, but also a Department of Homeland Security plan for an integrated network of sensors, fences, and surveillance technology.

Yet as was the case before the Iraq war, critics contend that the plan lacks the necessary manpower. As a result, the US-Mexico border is becoming the latest venue for a debate that has in some ways defined this administration's security policy: Can technology offset the need for more "boots on the ground" in operations such as border patrol or fighting insurgencies?

To be sure, border-patrol agents "could use all the help they can get," says Noah Shachtman of DefenseTech.org. "The question is whether help is more agents or more technology. It seems to me that the administration is leaning toward the 'more technology' approach."

Strictly speaking, it is doing both. By sending 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, the president is buying time. His plan is to increase the size of the border patrol from 12,000 to 18,000. The National Guard is simply a placeholder until the border patrol meets that goal.

Some critics, however, suggest that even 18,000 border-patrol agents aren't enough. "We need 25,000 to 30,000 agents," says TJ Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents agents.

The Bush administration has promoted the idea that technology can help make up the difference. "Boots on the ground is not really enough," said Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in a briefing last week. "You've got to leverage those boots. You've got to make them as effective as possible, and the way to do that is more tactical infrastructure - things like fences, vehicle barriers, and roads - and as important, next-generation technology."

For the time being, National Guard troops will take up those support tasks, building new fences and conducting aerial surveillance, for example. Chief of Border Patrol David Aguilar has called the Guard troops a "force multiplier," meaning that they can help the border patrol do more than their numbers suggest. After the Guard leaves, however, the "force multiplier" will be new technology.

This is the purpose of the Department of Homeland Security's border security initiative, a program that Bush called "the most technologically advanced ... in American history." It aims to help border-patrol agents monitor the border more efficiently though a suite of tools, from ground sensors to unmanned aerial vehicles to seamless communications.

For the most part, even critics aren't against the technology. Mr. Shachtman notes that the deployment of an unmanned aerial vehicle to the border did help agents track illegal border-crossers, increasing their effectiveness. But he adds that in one typical instance, three or four agents had to round up a group of 80 immigrants. "What would have been more helpful," he says, was six or seven more agents.

It is a common refrain. "[Technology] will identify the number of people coming over, but it won't apprehend them," says Stephen Eichler, executive director of the Minuteman Project, a private organization that opposes illegal immigration and patrols the border with volunteers.

Moreover, border activists have become wary of the promises of technology. Federal officials have long turned to technology in hopes of boosting a chronically overworked border patrol - often, however, with poor results.

• Ground sensors have had a tendency to go off for cattle crossings as much as immigrant crossings, wasting agents' time as they follow false leads.

• The unmanned aerial vehicle sent to the border eventually crashed.

• Control centers along the border are not integrated with one another, meaning that they can't communicate effectively.

• The predecessor of the Secure Border Initiative was so poorly managed and so behind schedule that the Department of Homeland Security simply scrapped it, according to a February Government Accountability Office report.

Secretary Chertoff insists this time will be different. The entire program will be built by one contractor "so that, for example, we won't have the problem of sensors that are not fully integrated with the operators."

But the administration also notes that this is a multifaceted problem that goes beyond border security. Neither technology nor boots on the ground will solve the problem if other elements aren't in place, too, such as better enforcement of employment laws among businesses, expanded detention centers, and so on.

Many experts agree. Bush "laid out pretty clearly these intertwined needs," says Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute. "Border control alone is not going to achieve what we want it to achieve."

To others, however, getting the border-control component right is crucial to the success of the entire enterprise, and that will take a clear assessment of what agents need most. Says Ms. Meyers: "Technology is important, but it's only one component."

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